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ClassicsOnline Home » GARDNER: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Symphony No. 1 / Midsummer Ale Overture
The English composer John Gardner has been largely neglected, in spite of his prolific output. His career began with great promise before the war, to be resumed gradually afterwards, but seldom with the success he seemed to deserve. This recording should help to re-establish his reputation with two relatively early works written in the post-war years, the Symphony No. 1, “a superbly crafted work... by a subtle and imaginative orchestrator” (Paul Conway/Musicweb-International) and the Piano Concerto No. 1, both premièred by Barbirolli. The Piano Concerto here receives only its third performance. Midsummer Ale is a classic piece of British light music with delightfully catchy melodies.
By David Denton
John Gardner (b. 1917)
Midsummer Ale, Op. 72
Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 34
Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 2
The neglect suffered by John Gardner's considerable musical output is both surprising and hard to understand. With his opus numbers having reached 249 he has composed an enormous amount of music for every conceivable combination of forces, including operas, symphonies, concertos, choral works, church music, and chamber works. His best known composition is 'Tomorrow shall be my dancing day', which is available on more than thirty CDs and is one of the most popular modern Christmas carols. Beyond that, whilst his work has been widely performed over the years, very little of it has found its way into the recorded music catalogue.
John Gardner's birth in Manchester on 2 March 1917 has led some to assume that he is a "Manchester composer", but it was simply the result of a fluke of family circumstances. He was in fact brought up in Ilfracombe in North Devon, where his paternal family had practised medicine for three generations. His grandfather John Twiname and his father Alfred Linton both wrote music. John Twiname Gardner had had a number of pieces of parlour music published, some of which are still occasionally performed and recorded.
Musical talent was evident at an early age. He went to Eagle House, Sandhurst, from where he progressed to Wellington College with a music scholarship, and thence to Exeter College, Oxford as Organ Scholar. The Eagle House archives reveal that he opened the school concert in December 1928 playing Roger Quilter's Children's Overture. At Wellington his musical contemporaries included the composer John Addison, the conductor and scholar (Sir) Anthony Lewis, and the performer, composer and longtime Secretary of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music, Philip Cranmer. The school records show that in 1932 Addison and Gardner competed for their house in the "Dormitory Music Cup", playing Gardner's Rondo for two pianos but their house came second to Cranmer's. The same year Gardner is noted as having performed the first movement of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 with the school orchestra, whilst Anthony Lewis played the last movement (one T.J. Hetherington played the middle movement).
At Oxford he was taught by, amongst others, R.O. Morris, whom he remembers seemed bored by teaching him as he "always had a train to catch". His contemporaries, who included the composer Geoffrey Bush, were envious of the fluency of his writing, and as World War II grew close he was beginning to make his mark as a composer. He was introduced to Hubert Foss, who had started the Oxford University Press music department, and the Australian composer Arthur Benjamin frequently offered advice and encouragement. His Intermezzo for Organ was published by Oxford University Press in 1934, his Rhapsody for Oboe and String Quartet was performed at the Wigmore Hall in 1935, and a delightful Serenade for Oboe, Piano and String Orchestra was performed by George Malcolm at Exeter College in 1937. The Blech Quartet took his String Quartet No. 1 in G minor to Paris, where it was broadcast on French Radio in May 1939, and OUP published the anthem 'Holy Son of God Most High'. In 1937 he had become one of the first composers to write for the new medium of television, being commissioned by the BBC to write two ballets and two cabaret songs.
On leaving University John Gardner briefly taught music at Repton School, where John Veale was one of his pupils, but then the War effectively put a stop to his career and he joined the RAF. He worked as dance-band pianist and as bandmaster of the Fighter Command Band before joining Transport Command as a navigator. On demobilisation he joined the Royal Opera House as a repetiteur (1946-52). In the following years he held a number of long-standing part-time teaching posts, including that of Director of Music at St Paul's Girls' School, Director of Music at Morley College and professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music. He was a Director of the Performing Right Society from 1965 to 1987 (and latterly its Deputy Chairman) and was made a C.B.E. in 1976. He has composed throughout his life and his latest work, written in 2004, is a Concerto for Bassoon and Strings, Op. 249.
The war had largely frustrated Gardner's compositional ambitions and on demobilisation he finally began to work on a major work – the Symphony No. 1 in D minor, Op. 2. He withdrew his pre-war works and started numbering again from Opus 1, feeling that it was time for a fresh start. The symphony was completed in the summer of 1947, but was not performed until 1951, when Barbirolli introduced it at the Cheltenham Festival in a version which had been slightly amended from the original, at Barbirolli's suggestion. It was dedicated to Gardner's Opera House colleague Reginald Goodall and enjoyed many performances and broadcasts in the next twenty years or so.
The success of this performance would lead to a string of commissions which began in 1951, allowed him to become "a composer" and continued throughout his working life. For Gardner, therefore, the symphony is a rare example of a work which simply had to be written rather than written to order. It is expansive both in length and scoring (triple woodwind). Despite the "new start" the symphony re-uses much material from Gardner's pre-war catalogue. Examples include the opening of the first movement (up to bar 34 when there is a quiet A major chord in the brass before a tempo change) which was a short piano piece (now lost) dating from 1939 or 1940. The opening of the finale is based on the finale of the String Quartet No. 1 in G minor (1938), which in turn was a revision of an earlier piece which had been written for a competition. It is clearly based on the thematic kernel from the opening of the first movement, but it has been transformed into something more urgent and even aggressive.
Although a lot of Gardner's later orchestral works explore traditional structures such as sonata form, the First Symphony is harder to pin down. To listen to the symphony is to go on a journey, but the themes are tightly integrated and in a constant state of development and transition, and this is what gives the work its cohesion and drives it towards its triumphant final D major chord. A more detailed analysis by Paul Conway can be found on the internet at http://www.musicweb-international.com/gardner/symphonies.html.
The Piano Concerto No. 1 in B flat, Op. 34, was the last of Gardner's works to be given its première by John Barbirolli. The first performance was at the Cheltenham Festival in July 1957. The pianist was Cyril Preedy, who was thought to have a great career ahead of him, but who died in 1965 at the age of 45. The lack-lustre first performance more or less put paid to the work. It was revived once in 1965 by Malcolm Binns with Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic, but apart from that, has lain dormant until the present recording.
The concerto was completed in 1956 and was dedicated to Alfred Blundell, who commissioned the work. Blundell was an old Wellingtonian who was not a musician, but enjoyed being responsible for the creation of new pieces of music. It is scored for double woodwind, brass without trombones and tuba, two percussion players and strings.
The first movement follows the classical symphonic pattern, but does not include the extended exposition and solo cadenza typical of the classical concerto. The second movement opens with a sixteen-bar theme which is developed and briefly reprised before being the subject of four variations. These lead back into a reprise of the theme and a cadenza in which the piano is joined by a number of other instruments. This passes straight into the rondo finale, the main theme of which is related to the variation theme.
Gardner generally prefers his music to stand on its own feet and rarely does he provide detailed programme notes. Thus for the overture Midsummer Ale, Op. 73, written in 1965 for the Morley College Orchestra, he said "Debussy and Joan Last must be the only composers who never found the naming of pieces one hell of a chore. I spent longer searching for the title of this piece than in writing down its notes on a five-line stave. The commission, from the Friends of Morley, for a piece to assist in the celebration of the College's 75th Birthday in 1965, suggested something light and gay and, as the original intention was to perform it at a concert on 29 June [which was cancelled, the first performance actually being on 9 November 1965], the idea of a summer party came to my mind. I decided, however, at first to call it Academic Festival Overture until I realised that that title had already been used in connexion with a bean-feast in Breslau in 1879. Eventually a perusal of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (a must for all composers in searching for titles) threw up the expression 'Midsummer Ale', which uses the word 'ale' in a sense it has now lost: that of a feast or celebration at which, naturally, a lot of ale was drunk."
The melodies in this boisterous and bacchanalian piece swing through an ever-changing array of duple and compound time signatures. This is characteristic of Gardner's music and exemplified by the ever popular 'Tomorrow shall be my dancing day', but in Midsummer Ale it reaches new heights of inebriation. It is a classic piece of light music and the melodies are delightfully catchy. Once heard they are difficult to get out of one's head.
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GARDNER: Piano Concerto No. 1 / Symphony No. 1 / M...